Bob Bestler

Bob Bestler: American Legion ball in serious decline

The Walla Walla Bruins dogpile near the mound after the final out of their championship game with Mount Vernon on July 27 in Walla Walla, Wash., for the AA American Legion state baseball championship.
The Walla Walla Bruins dogpile near the mound after the final out of their championship game with Mount Vernon on July 27 in Walla Walla, Wash., for the AA American Legion state baseball championship. AP

The biggest thrill of my brief baseball career, which pretty much ended after high school, was playing in Minnesota’s American Legion state baseball tournament.

The year was 1955 and I was a very young second baseman on a team of elders; I was 15, playing with 18-year-olds.

We had won the Southeastern regional and were now playing at the mammoth stadium of the St. Paul Saints, then a Brooklyn Dodgers Triple A farm club. It was a big deal for this small-town kid.

Our first game was against Hibbing, a favored team from somewhere up north. Somehow we managed a come-from-behind win and a photo of me crossing home plate with the tying run ran in the Sunday St. Paul Pioneer Press. Pretty heady stuff.

Unfortunately, we were crushed the next day by a team called St. Paul Cretin, where I struck out twice and managed one weak grounder for an out.

No surprise, though. The Cretin pitcher, Paul Siebert, was the son of Dick Seibert, the University of Minnesota baseball coach who led the Gophers to three College World Series titles.

Paul went on to play for the Astros, Padres and Mets.

I mention all this after reading that the great tradition of American Legion baseball is in serious decline around the country.

For almost a century, playing American Legion baseball was how promising young players spent their summer days after the high school season ended. I spent a couple summers working on my uncle’s dairy farm, and spent many nights heading into town for a game after a day in the fields. You couldn’t keep me away.

According to the Washington Post, the Legion “once boasted era-defining players’’ such as Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, Ted Williams, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson.

The Post said the Legion has lost about 25 percent of its teams in the past 10 years, with some states losing many more.

Citing participation reports, the Post said “states like Florida, California, New Jersey and Oklahoma have lost nearly 80 percent of their teams since 2008.’’

New Jersey, for example, had 336 American Legion teams in 2008; this season it had 51.

Part of the problem is the rise of competing summer leagues, some of which have the resources to recruit the best players and better showcase their talents.

Another, of course, is the sad but continuing loss of American Legion posts nationwide.

The Post said that between 2000 and 2014, the Legion lost nearly 1,000 posts while membership dropped 11 percent to 2.4 million members.

As far as I can tell, American Legion baseball is still alive and well in Horry County and other parts of the Carolinas, where American Legion posts remain strong.

What happens in the future could be another matter as America’s military population continues to age and shrink.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said there were 22.7 million veterans worldwide in 2013; it predicts there will be just 14 million by 2020.

And that may not be enough to keep its baseball tradition alive — another passing of a large chunk of Americana.

Contact Bob Bestler at besler6@tds.net

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